This is a guest post by AJITA BANERJIE
“In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes there will also be singing.
About the dark times”
– Bertolt Brecht.
In the dark times we live in right now, resistance to fascist forces could lead to arrest or death. Dissent comes with a rather heavy price to pay.Issues of democratic-national relevance have ranged from consuming beef, resisting death penalty, resisting political control over academic institutions, protesting against privatisation of education and the most recent tragedy of Rohit Vemula’s suicide.
And that’s the story of Kabir Kala Manch – a group of poets and singers that takes up issues of social inequality, atrocities on Dalits, farmer suicides, patriarchy and capitalism. Kabir Kala Manch was formed in the wake of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Activists of the Kabir Kala Manch were framed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly ascribing to and promoting Maoist ideology by the state government. In May 2011, a crackdown by the Anti-Terrorism Squadron led to the members of Kabir Kala Manch going underground into hiding. In 2013, Sheetal Satheand her husband Sachin Mali, members of the KKM were arrested after they staged a ‘satyagraha’ outside the Vidhan Sabha in Mumbai to declare that they were not surrendering but making a statement establishing their innocence and that they have performed within the confines of democratic conduct. Sheetal who was pregnant at that time, was granted bail after rejecting the bail plea twice before.
But the spirit of the members is not broken. Sachin has authored two books from his prison cell and Sheetal continues to sing songs of democracy.
Sheetal Sathe and her troupe performed in Delhi on 7 February where Sheetal sang fiercely about freedom from oppression as she reminded us of Ambedkar’s vision of a freedom which could only be achieved when caste and gender oppression ends. During her performance she talked about how the essence of Manusmriti – a patriarchal, casteist diktat-is still prevalent in society.
Insaan ko achoot aur gulam kiya hai
Kaisa ye karam hai, Kaisa ye dharam hai.
Har gaon ke bahar humari basti kyun hai
Daliton ki jaanein itni sasti kyun hai.
Commenting on the arrests of her husband Sachin, Sheetal ponders, “Humare man mein ye hi sawal hai ki Sarkar ne haasil kya kiya?” Members of KKM are passionate young people with the zeal to make our society more equitable and democratic. “Their talent, youth and passion is getting wasted in the prison cells. They could be doing wonderful things for the society.”
If dissent amounts to arrest, if resistance against oppression leads to attacks, if political commentary can surmount to someone being branded a terrorist, what is the real definition of anti-national? Who is the nation really protecting?
Sheetal talked about how KKM has been targeted and attacked and on several occasions their performance has been disrupted by ABVP members. But Sheetal is made of strong mettle. It’s been two and a half years since Sachin is in jail. “If our son doesn’t get the love of his father, are his human rights not being violated?” Clearly, the Conventions of Child Rights and Right to Family doesn’t apply for ‘anti-nationals’. She tells us that Sachin’s mother is a poor agricultural labourer who is asked by her neighbours about the crime her son has committed.
“Murderers, rapists, corrupt millionaires, all get away with their crimes. What is it that your son has done that he is still in prison? Must be a heinous crime.”
“It is. My son committed the crime of speaking the truth. He spoke against injustice, that’s his crime.”
In one of her songs, Sheetal talks about how in times like these, where progressive movements are being crushed by fascist forces, it is the responsibility of cultural activists to rekindle hope among people and continue fighting against oppression.
“Nahi darenge, sangharsh karenge
Zaari rakhenge ye ladai,
Jaati se ladke, Manu se ladke.
Khatam karenge ye tanashahi
Dalit aye zinda rakhne, ye Lok Shahi.”
She sang for us a song that Sachin had penned in jail. It said, “They can destroy our bodies, but they can’t destroy our thoughts.” They refer to history and remind us of Tukaram, poet from the Bhakti Movement whose books were destroyed. They refer to the bloodshed at the hands of religious fanatics whose rise to power was tainted with the blood of righteous leaders such as Phule and Gandhi. Artists have always been targeted by these fascist forces for igniting the consciousness of people. It is the reason why Safdar Hashmi and poet Avtar Singh (Pash) were killed. It is seeking the same truth that Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare laid down their lives.
The government is very efficient when it comes to arresting political dissenters. But Bhotmange languished for justice for the cold-blooded murder of his family. The women of the family, Surekha and Priyanka, were paraded naked in public before being murdered.The murderers of Dhabolkar and Pansare are still not arrested. This injustice, this brutal oppressive system is one that has trickled down since the age of Manu which crushed the Dalits, women and poor by allocating them inhumane job such as manual scavenging. This is why Ambedkar had burned the Manusrmiti. This is why we need to destroy the oppressive caste system in order to call ourselves free.
Sachin writes in his song, “Socrates drank poison for truth and Copernicus invoked the wrath of the Pope. Martin Luther was deemed a renegade and Galileo was thrown into jail for challenging the status quo.” But they were all visionaries and revolutionaries and their spirits did not die. Just like that, we will keep fighting for the truth and speak up against injustice.
Sheetal ended the performance with a tribute to Rohit Vemula whose suicide is seen as a result of structural oppression and the pressures from an inherently casteist system, followed by a tribute to Bhagat Singh. Her strong voice enters your conscience as she sings:
“Aye Bhagat singh tu zinda hai
Har ek lahu ke qatre mein
Inqalab ke naare mein
Aye Bhagat Singh tu zinda hai
Tune toh tab hi bola tha
Ye azadi nahi dhokha hai
Ye poori mukti nahi hai yaaron
Goronke sang sauda hai.
Aye Bhagat singh tu zinda hai”
[Ajita Banerjie is a researcher with Naz Foundation, Delhi.]